Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) titled Senate Bill (SB) 6 the Damon Allen Act to honor a state trooper who was shot and killed in 2017 by a suspect out on a $15,000 bond for felony charges and who had previously attacked a sheriff’s deputy.
Passed with a bipartisan 27 to 2 vote in the Senate earlier this month, the measure faced greater opposition in the House and Rep. Reggie Smith (R-Sherman) accepted several amendments, most notably regarding the ability of charitable organizations to post bail for suspects.
Several organizations engage in the practice of providing bail for suspects. During a House Constitutional Rights and Remedies Committee hearing on SB 6, Lauren Rosales from the Texas Bail Project testified that her group had posted bail for 600 individuals over the past year.
While the Senate version essentially prohibited charitable organizations from posting bail, the House amended bill allows the practice with some conditions. Any non-religious charitable group that posts bail for more than three individuals per year will be required to obtain certification with the county and provide reports to the county sheriff who will then report to the state’s Office of Court Administration (OCA). The legislation also empowers the local sheriff to de-certify any organization that does not follow the rules for providing bail bonds.
While requiring that magistrates seek the least restrictive conditions for pretrial release of suspects, the core provisions of SB 6 prohibit the release on personal bond (PR) of offenders accused of specific violent crimes. These include capital murder, kidnapping, human trafficking, and numerous sexual offenses. The proposal also prohibits PR bonds for defendants charged with new felonies or other violent crimes if they are already out on bail for offenses involving violence.
In addition, SB 6 will require additional training for magistrates and other county officials setting bail and requires the use of a yet-to-be-created state database containing robust criminal background information on any suspect. The proposed Public Safety Report (PSR) will cost the state an estimated $2.5 million to set up and a fiscal note for SB 6 places costs at $4.2 million for the biennium, but Smith said the database will be provided to counties free of charge by April of 2022.
In arguing against the bill, Rep. Ann Johnson (D-Houston) said the state would be imposing another unfunded mandate on counties that could cost as much as $62 million and objected to the costs of creating a new database.
Another key component of SB 6 requires each county to submit reports on bail activities to the OCA which will make the data publicly available online and will submit reports to the Texas legislature each year.
“Our [current] system lacks transparency and accountability,” Smith told fellow legislators in laying out the bill in committee.
Smith also noted that SB 6 tracked a U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the Harris County v ODonnell lawsuit regarding misdemeanor bail that outlines the requirements for the constitutional use of schedules for setting bail.
Despite the Fifth Circuit’s repudiation of “overbroad remedies” imposed by a federal court judge in the ODonnell case, following the 2018 elections Harris County agreed to a consent decree that embraced and expanded such remedies and prohibits pretrial detention of nearly any misdemeanor suspect. Earlier this month, prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a murder victim against the county over the ODonnell settlement.
Although there is increasing concern over the release of habitual violent offenders and a rising crime rate in the Houston region, Harris County Commissioners Court registered in opposition to SB 6 and earlier this year sent Colin Cepuran, an advocate for abolishing all prisons, to testify against similar legislation. Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) has also voiced support for ending cash bail entirely.
Since the Texas Constitution effectively guarantees a suspect’s right to bail, the Senate also passed Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 3 which would allow voters to weigh in on the issue in a constitutional amendment election next May. SJR 3 was tentatively approved in the House 87 to 35 but without the two-thirds vote necessary for a constitutional amendment election.
SB 6 will now return to the Senate which may accept the amended version or push the legislation to a conference committee to iron out differences.
Huffman’s office did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
Update: On Tuesday afternoon the Texas Senate voted 26 to 5 to concur with the House amended version of SB 6. The measure will now be sent to the governor to be signed into law.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.